Franchising and stabilising: Chatting Smite Pro League with Hi-Rez Studios' Esports Brand Director
We caught up with Auverin Morrow to talk about Season 8 of the SPL, the Smite Challenger Circuit, and what 2022 has in store for us.
Season 8 of the Smite Pro League is now over. After a gruelling season, featuring a revamped format and rebuilt competitive scene - framed around franchised, Hi-Rez Studios owned and run teams - the Atlantis Leviathans have cemented themselves in the history books by lifting the hammer after blowing out the Tartarus Titans in Sunday's Grand Finals. With such a different appearance to previous years, I've had the chance to speak with Hi-Rez's esports brand director, Auverin Morrow, about how successful 2021 was for competitive Smite.
To start with, I asked Morrow about the transition of changing the SPL from a third-party organisation-represented league to a franchised one, and how this went for Hi-Rez over the past 12 months.
"When we announced this change, even when we were discussing it internally, we were like "are we crazy for doing this? Are we actually out of our minds." When we announced it to the community, the sentiment was also kind of the same" Morrow told me. "But, Year One has really been an astounding success by all metrics. Covid was what it was, and we ran into a lot of roadblocks there, especially with countries being locked down and the ensuing VISA issues that happened as a result. But overall, the VISA process to the payment process to just having more agency over our brands and how we integrate them in-game, has been way smoother without having that middle man."
"I actually have some data here from a presentation we gave recently at ESI Digital Winter. We created unique Twitter accounts for these teams, we created their logos, their names, their brands, their brand voices, they all sound a little different on Twitter, and just in our first year, we've generated over 18.7 million impressions, over 1.3 million engagements, and then 1.1 million views on YouTube. In some instances, we're seeing more engagements on the brand accounts than what we ever saw from the third-party organisation accounts. The amount of love and attention we've been able to give to those brands, every team is on a little more equal footing now. We've been able to take a lot more control over those brands and make sure every single team gets a dedicated social plan, dedicated content, dedicated marketing, and it's really paid off in the first year."
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The right time for a change
With the league now being operated by Hi-Rez, I asked Morrow whether this massive overhaul helped Smite esports develop throughout 2021, especially considering the difficult past 12 months.
"It's definitely helped us stabilise," Morrow stated. "We don't have to worry about whether this org is going to have more problems with the VISA process than this org, or is this org going to get frustrated with the fact that we can't get VISAs through, and are they going to drop [out]. There are a lot of questions that come into play when you're working with third-party organisations, who can basically act independently of your internal goals, and being able to know for a fact that these are the brands we have and these are the brands we're going to continue to have, not only helped us get through 2021, but really, the most important thing was giving us more direct access to players, and the processes behind VISAs and payments."
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"There were very few hiccups there, besides from the global issues being what they are, but it also helped us plan a little more long-term. At the start of 2021, we could already start thinking about 2022. Now that we're at the start of 2022, we can already start thinking about 2023. We know what those brands are going to be and we know what we want to do with them and how we can integrate them into our game, even more than they already are. It's been really fantastic. It's saved us a lot of headaches I would say."
Keeping it local: Blessing or curse?
Franchised esports leagues have become more common as of the last few years. Be it the Overwatch League, the Call of Duty League, or any of the top League of Legends divisions, there are plenty of examples, but the majority of franchised slots are based in various locations around the world. With this in mind, I asked Morrow whether having the SPL based in Georgia, USA posed any difficulties or limited the growth of the SPL in any sense.
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"It has had its fair share of challenges that's for sure, especially in the post Covid world. VISAs are a nightmare across the board. But generally speaking, having players here... really it's about access for us. We are a much smaller esports company than what you'll see, especially in the MOBA space, because we're in the space of League of Legends and Dota. We're a much smaller team and we have to be much more careful and strategic in how we allot our resources."
Morrow continued, "Bringing the players to us was actually the most optimal way to get us the access we needed to create the kind of content we wanted to see around the teams. To be able to have them come in and scrim in the environment they're actually going to compete in has been a huge help for teams this year. Having them local gives us so much more access to them, and let's us do content, marketing, all kinds of promotional initiatives, sponsorship integrations, live media days, and that kind of content has gone so far in helping us market these players and market these teams because we have a very player-driven marketing strategy for our esport."
"None of this happens without the players, that's what people show up for," Morrow added. "People show up for the likes of PolarBearMike and Fineokay. People follow those personalities and we wanted to make sure that we could access them at any time and use them to better market the teams that they are playing for."
Season 9 and the future
With the success of Season 8, Hi-Rez has already announced a series of changes to the competitive scene for Season 9. In 2022, ahead of the regular league play starting on April 1, there will be a Kickoff Tournament from March 25, and before that, February 18 will mark the start of the Promotion Tournament, giving Smite Challenger Circuit teams a chance to compete in the SPL. The teams in the SPL will then be playing in three phases of competition, with each capped with a Masters-tier LAN event all in the run up to the next Smite World Championship, set to take place in December 2022 or January 2023.
With this new format, one that sees tier-two competition supported to an even larger degree, I asked Morrow about what drove the decision to double-down on the SCC.
"I can see why larger esports scenes might be like, "there's really no value in doing like a tier-two semi-pro esport," but for us, the one thing that we are always focused on is sustainability," said Morrow. "This is a very insular community that we serve, it's sort of a cult of personalities, people have that one pro player that they really, really love, and that pro player is a superstar, and that's what people show up for."
"What we have to keep in mind is eventually everyone is going to retire. We have to make sure there is a next generation of superstars ready to take over. One thing that we are really, really focused on, especially heading into Season 9, is really building up how we support that scene, really formalising it, making sure we give it the support that it needs, and starting to scale up visibility on social media so that people can start to connect with these semi-pro players in the same way that they connect with these pro players. We're working to create clearer paths for those semi-pro teams to make it into the Pro League."
You can read all about the changes coming to the Smite Pro League in Season 9 here, as well as getting a deeper look into its format here.
While the SPL and the SCC are the most notable esports scenes in Hi-Rez's portfolio, the rapid growth and success of Rogue Company has begged the question as to whether we'll get to see the tactical shooter get a similar professional scene down the line. Morrow told us.
"Rogue Company esports are some of the most highly requested things among our community. We aren't quite ready to share any plans for what we want to do in 2022, but it is something that we are extensively looking into and we're trying to create some new strategies if we do start to ramp up support."
Thanks to Auverin Morrow and Hi-Rez Studios for speaking with us. You can also take a look at a bunch of the new content coming to Smite in Season 9 here, and what the next few months of Rogue Company will look like here.